Skip to main content

Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

See other formats


MEN OF MATHEMATICS
his cheeks, and in all his bouts he never lost a drop of blood.
Whether or not he was ever put under the table in the subse-
quent celebrations of his numerous victories is not known. His
discreet biographers are somewhat reticent on this important
point, but to anyone who has ever contemplated one of Weier-
strass' mathematical masterpieces it is inconceivable that so
strong a head as his could ever have nodded over a half-gallon
stein. His four mis-spent years in the university were perhaps
after all well spent.
His experiences at Bonn did three things of the greatest
moment for Weierstrass: they cured him of his father fixation
without in any way damaging his affection for his deluded
parent; they made him a human being capable of entering fully
into the pathetic hopes and aspirations of human beings less
gifted than himself- his pupils - and thus contributed directly
to his success as probably the greatest mathematical teacher
of all time; and last, the humorous geniality of his boyhood
became a fixed life-habit. So the 'student years' were not the
loss his disappointed father and his fluttering sisters - to say
nothing of the panicky Peter - thought they were when Karl
returned, after four 'empty' }~ears at Bonns without a degree,
to the bosom of his wailing family.
There was a terrific row. They lectured him - 'sick of body
and soul' as he was, possibly the result of not enough law, too
little mathematics, and too much beer; they sat around and
glowered at him and, worst of all, they began to discuss him as
if he were dead: what was to be done with the corpse? Touching
the law, Weierstrass had only one brief encounter with it at
Bonn, but it sufficed: he astonished the Dean and his friends by
his acute 'opposition1 of a candidate for the doctor degree in
law* As for the mathematics at Bonn - it was inconsiderable.
The one gifted man, Julius Pliicker, who might have done
Weierstrass some good was so busy with his manifold duties
that he had no time to spare on individuals and Weierstrass got
nothing out of him.
But like Abel and so many other mathematicians of the first
lank, Weierstrass had gone to the masters in the interludes
between his fencing and drinking: he had been absorbing the
454